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Safety taskforce demands better police culture for domestic violence victims

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A women’s safety taskforce has recommended an independent commission of inquiry into “harmful cultural problems” within the Queensland Police which hamper domestic and family violence investigations.

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The damning report, by the Women’s Safety and Justice Taskforce and handed to the State Government on Thursday, also calls for a judicial commission to examine complaints about judicial officers and says that domestic violence victims should not have to enter a “raffle” to see if they can get proper service from police.

And it finds “fundamental systemic and structural issues” which erode public confidence in the delivery of justice.

Hundreds of victims had shared stories of being disbelieved and turned away by police when they sought help.

The Hear Her Voice report, given to the Attorney General, makes 89 recommendations to the State Government about urgent reforms needed in the domestic violence service and justice systems and a four-phase plan for legislative reform.

And it calls for a new crime of coercive control to be implemented, although not immediately.

It follows widespread calls for coercive control to be criminalised and came after the shocking murders of Hannah Clarke and her three children on February 19, 2020, when they were ambushed in their car and set alight in Camp Hill by Hannah’s estranged husband.

Taskforce chair, Margaret McMurdo, said system-wide reform was needed before a new coercive control offence was introduced.

She said the inquiry had heard heartbreaking accounts from women about the distress, fear and all-round devastating impact of a coercively controlling perpetrator.

There was an overwhelming theme, in the victims’ voices, about unsatisfactory responses they sought help for domestic violence from some police officers.

“Hundreds of victims have told the taskforce – in submissions and at almost every consultation we undertook – that they were not believed, their experiences were minimised or they were even turned away by police officers when seeking help to keep themselves safe from domestic violence and hold the perpetrators accountable,” McMurdo said.

She said victims had reported vast inconsistencies in the police response, at times feeling supported and then later let down by an unhelpful response to their need for safety, she said.

The taskforce had heard that police often failed to properly investigate complaints about domestic and family violence and failed to bring appropriate criminal charges against the perpetrator.

“Victims of domestic violence seeking help from the police to keep themselves and their children safe should not have to enter a raffle to see if the officer they encounter will respond appropriately,” McMurdo said.

She said the taskforce had concluded, with one dissent, that despite the fine work of the State’s police service, that “harmful cultural problem within the QPS persist”.

“When a woman who is seeking help is turned away by the police, she won’t go back,” McMurdo said.

“The taskforce has great concerns that there are many women experiencing domestic and family violence who won’t even pick up their phone to call police because they have no confidence in their ability to help. Police are the gateway to the justice system and we need to do better.”

McMurdo said the justice system’s current approach of responding to single, usually physical, incidents of domestic violence, is outdated.

“Domestic violence involving coercive control is usually not a one-off incident but a pattern of abusive behaviour that occurs over time. It needs to be viewed in the context of the whole relationship,” McMurdo said.

Since the taskforce was set up in March 2021, it had received more than 700 submissions, met with more than 125 key stakeholders and spoken to women with lived experience.

“Women have told us that the justice system is failing victims of domestic violence and they have had enough,” McMurdo said.

Telling their stories to the task force, being believed and heard, was the first step toward recovery and a journey to justice, she said.

Attorney-General Shannon Fentiman, who is also the Minister for Woman and the Prevention of Domestic and Family Violence, said the report’s findings would be extensively considered and would help lay the foundations to criminalise coercive control.

The government will provide a formal response to the report in early 2022.

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